In new guidance sent to educators across the country, federal education officials say that schools may be liable if they don’t properly address bullying of students with disabilities.

The guidance issued Tuesday in a four-page “Dear Colleague” letter details the unique obligations that schools have under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to ensure that children with disabilities are not victimized.

Specifically, officials from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services said that bullying can lead to a denial of a student’s right to a free and appropriate public education, or FAPE, if it “results in the student not receiving meaningful educational benefit.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

What’s more, they warned schools not to automatically move a student with a disability who is being bullied to a more segregated environment. Such a change could be considered a denial of a student’s right to be educated in the least restrictive environment, the guidance said.

“We know that students with disabilities are disproportionately affected by bullying,” said Melody Musgrove, director of the Education Department’s Office of Special Education Programs. “Schools have a responsibility to ensure that FAPE and the least restrictive environment is available to students with disabilities.”

In cases where bullying occurs, educators should intervene immediately and respond “quickly and consistently,” according to the letter signed by Musgrove and Michael Yudin, acting assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

Additionally, a meeting of the student’s individualized education program team should be called to address any changes in a student’s services or program that might be needed as a result of bullying, officials said. However, the letter indicates that any student who experiences bullying should remain in his or her original placement unless they are no longer able to receive FAPE in that environment.

Musgrove said that the move to issue guidance is part of the Department of Education’s ongoing effort to address bullying within the nation’s schools. While the letter does not detail any new legal obligations, federal officials are encouraging schools to re-evaluate their policies and practices.

Several studies in recent years have suggested that children with disabilities more frequently encounter bullying. Findings released in 2012 from a nationwide poll indicated that 63 percent of kids with autism have been bullied. Another study published the same year found that about half of adolescents with autism, intellectual disability, speech impairments and learning disabilities were bullied at school.

Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, called the Education Department’s move a “significant step forward.”

“Right now, many autistic students experiencing bullying are sent to segregated settings,” Ne’eman said. “We believe this clarification of obligations emerging under IDEA’s (least restrictive environment) provision may have a significant impact on the inclusion of autistic students as well as those with other disabilities.”